Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Ngugi wa Thiong'o - Festivaletteratura 2012.JPG
BornJames Ngugi
(1938-01-05) 5 January 1938 (age 84)
Kamiriithu, Kenya
LanguageEnglish, Kikuyu
EducationMakerere University (BA)
University of Leeds
ChildrenMũkoma, Wanjiku and others
Official website

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (Gikuyu pronunciation: [ᵑɡoɣe wá ðiɔŋɔ];[1] born James Ngugi; 5 January 1938)[2] is a Kenyan Kikuyu writer and academic who writes primarily in Gikuyu and who formerly wrote in English. His work includes novels, plays, short stories, and essays, ranging from literary and social criticism to children's literature. He is the founder and editor of the Gikuyu-language journal Mũtĩiri. His short story The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright, is translated into 100[3] languages from around the world.[4]

In 1977, Ngũgĩ embarked upon a novel form of theatre in his native Kenya that sought to liberate the theatrical process from what he held to be "the general bourgeois education system", by encouraging spontaneity and audience participation in the performances.[5] His project sought to "demystify" the theatrical process, and to avoid the "process of alienation [that] produces a gallery of active stars and an undifferentiated mass of grateful admirers" which, according to Ngũgĩ, encourages passivity in "ordinary people".[5] Although his landmark play, Ngaahika Ndeenda, co-written with Ngugi wa Mirii, was a commercial success, it was shut down by the authoritarian Kenyan regime six weeks after its opening.[5]

Ngũgĩ was subsequently imprisoned for over a year. Adopted as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, the artist was released from prison, and fled Kenya.[6] In the United States, he is currently Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the University of California, Irvine. He has also previously taught at Northwestern University, Yale University, and New York University. Ngũgĩ has frequently been regarded as a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.[7][8][9] He won the 2001 International Nonino Prize in Italy, and the 2016 Park Kyong-ni Prize. Among his children are the authors Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ[10] and Wanjiku wa Ngũgĩ.[11]


Early years and education[edit]

Ngũgĩ was born in Kamiriithu, near Limuru[12] in Kiambu district, Kenya, of Kikuyu descent, and baptised James Ngugi. His family was caught up in the Mau Mau Uprising; his half-brother Mwangi was actively involved in the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, and his mother was tortured at Kamiriithu home guard post.[13]

He went to the Alliance High School, and went on to study at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda. As a student he attended the African Writers Conference held at Makerere in June 1962,[14][15][16][17] and his play The Black Hermit premiered as part of the event at The National Theatre.[18][19] At the conference Ngũgĩ asked Chinua Achebe to read the manuscripts of his novels The River Between and Weep Not, Child, which would subsequently be published in Heinemann's African Writers Series, launched in London that year, with Achebe as its first advisory editor.[20] Ngũgĩ received his B.A. in English from Makerere University College, Uganda, in 1963.

First publications and studies in England[edit]

His debut novel, Weep Not, Child, was published in May 1964, becoming the first novel in English to be published by a writer from East Africa.[21][20]

Later that year, having won a scholarship to the University of Leeds to study for an MA, Ngũgĩ travelled to England, where he was when his second novel, The River Between, came out in 1965.[20] The River Between, which has as its background the Mau Mau Uprising, and described an unhappy romance between Christians and non-Christians, was previously on Kenya's national secondary school syllabus.[22][23][24] He left Leeds without completing his thesis on Caribbean literature,[25] for which his studies had focused on George Lamming, about whom Ngũgĩ said in his 1972 collection of essays Homecoming: "He evoked for me, an unforgettable picture of a peasant revolt in a white-dominated world. And suddenly I knew that a novel could be made to speak to me, could, with a compelling urgency, touch cords [sic] deep down in me. His world was not as strange to me as that of Fielding, Defoe, Smollett, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, D. H. Lawrence."[20]

Change of name, ideology and teaching[edit]

Ngũgĩ's 1967 novel A Grain of Wheat marked his embrace of Fanonist Marxism. He subsequently renounced Christianity, writing in English, and the name James Ngugi as colonialist; by 1970 he had changed his name to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o,[26] and began to write in his native Gikuyu.[27] In 1967, Ngũgĩ also began teaching at the University of Nairobi as a professor of English literature. He continued to teach at the university for ten years while serving as a Fellow in Creative Writing at Makerere. During this time, he also guest lectured at Northwestern University in the department of English and African Studies for a year.[19]

While a professor at the University of Nairobi, Ngũgĩ was the catalyst of the discussion to abolish the English department. He argued that after the end of colonialism, it was imperative that a university in Africa teach African literature, including oral literature, and that such should be done with the realization of the richness of African languages.[28]


In 1976 he helped set up The Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre which, among other things, organised African Theatre in the area. The uncensored political message of his 1977 play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), co-written with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii, provoked the then Kenyan Vice-President Daniel arap Moi to order his arrest. While detained in the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, Ngũgĩ wrote the first modern novel in Gikuyu, Devil on the Cross (Caitaani mũtharaba-Inĩ), on prison-issued toilet paper.

After his release in December 1978,[19] he was not reinstated to his job as professor at Nairobi University, and his family was harassed. Due to his writing about the injustices of the dictatorial government at the time, Ngugi and his family were forced to live in exile. Only after Arap Moi retired after serving his second and last term in 2002, 22 years later, was it safe for them to return.[29]

During his time in prison, Ngũgĩ made the decision to cease writing his plays and other works in English and began writing all his creative works in his native tongue, Gikuyu.[19]

His time in prison also inspired the play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976). He wrote this in collaboration with Micere Githae Mugo.[30]


While in exile, Ngugi worked with the London-based Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya (1982–98).[19][6] Matigari ma Njiruungi (translated by Wangui wa Goro into English as Matigari) was published at this time. In 1984, he was Visiting Professor at Bayreuth University, and the following year was Writer-in-Residence for the Borough of Islington in London.[19] He also studied film at Dramatiska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden (1986).[19]

His later works include Detained, his prison diary (1981), Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), an essay arguing for African writers' expression in their native languages rather than European languages, in order to renounce lingering colonial ties and to build an authentic African literature, and Matigari (translated by Wangui wa Goro), (1987), one of his most famous works, a satire based on a Gikuyu folk tale.

Ngũgĩ was Visiting Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Yale University between 1989 and 1992.[19] In 1992, he was guest at the Congress of South African Writers and spent time in Zwide Township with Mzi Mahola, the year he became a professor of Comparative Literature and Performance Studies at New York University, where he held the Erich Maria Remarque Chair. He is currently a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature as well as having been the first director of the International Center for Writing and Translation[31] at the University of California, Irvine.


Ngũgĩ reading at the Library of Congress in 2019

On 8 August 2004, Ngũgĩ returned to Kenya as part of a month-long tour of East Africa. On 11 August, robbers broke into his high-security apartment: they assaulted Ngũgĩ, sexually assaulted his wife and stole various items of value.[32] When Ngũgĩ returned to America at the end of his month trip, five men were arrested on suspicion of the crime, including Ngũgĩ's own nephew.[29] In the summer 2006 the American publishing firm Random House published his first new novel in nearly two decades, Wizard of the Crow, translated to English from Gikuyu by the author.

On 10 November 2006, while in San Francisco at Hotel Vitale at the Embarcadero, Ngũgĩ was harassed and ordered to leave the hotel by an employee. The event led to a public outcry and angered both African-Americans and members of the African diaspora living in America,[33][34] prompting an apology by the hotel.[35]

His recent books include Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing (2012), and Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance, a collection of essays published in 2009 making the argument for the crucial role of African languages in "the resurrection of African memory", about which Publishers Weekly said: "Ngugi’s language is fresh; the questions he raises are profound, the argument he makes is clear: 'To starve or kill a language is to starve and kill a people’s memory bank.'"[36] This was followed by two well received autobiographical works: Dreams in a Time of War: a Childhood Memoir (2010)[37][38][39][40][41] and In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir (2012), which was described as "brilliant and essential" by the Los Angeles Times,[42] among other positive reviews.[43][44][45]

His book The Perfect Nine, originally written and published in Gikuyu as Kenda Muiyuru: Rugano Rwa Gikuyu na Mumbi (2019), was translated into English by Ngũgĩ for its 2020 publication, and is a reimagining in epic poetry of his people's origin story.[46] It was described by the Los Angeles Times as "a quest novel-in-verse that explores folklore, myth and allegory through a decidedly feminist and pan-African lens."[47] The review in World Literature Today said:

"Ngũgĩ crafts a beautiful retelling of the Gĩkũyũ myth that emphasizes the noble pursuit of beauty, the necessity of personal courage, the importance of filial piety, and a sense of the Giver Supreme—a being who represents divinity, and unity, across world religions. All these things coalesce into dynamic verse to make The Perfect Nine a story of miracles and perseverance; a chronicle of modernity and myth; a meditation on beginnings and endings; and a palimpsest of ancient and contemporary memory, as Ngũgĩ overlays the Perfect Nine's feminine power onto the origin myth of the Gĩkũyũ people of Kenya in a moving rendition of the epic form."[48]

Fiona Sampson writing in The Guardian concluded that it is "a beautiful work of integration that not only refuses distinctions between 'high art' and traditional storytelling, but supplies that all-too rare human necessity: the sense that life has meaning."[49]

In March 2021, The Perfect Nine became the first work written in an indigenous African language to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize, with Ngũgĩ becoming the first nominee as both the author and translator of the same book.[50][51]


Four of his children are also published authors: Tee Ngũgĩ, Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, Nducu wa Ngũgĩ, and Wanjiku wa Ngũgĩ.[52][47]

Awards and honours[edit]

Honorary degrees[edit]



  • Weep Not, Child (1964), ISBN 1-4050-7331-4
  • The River Between (1965), ISBN 0-435-90548-1
  • A Grain of Wheat (1967, 1992), ISBN 0-14-118699-2
  • Petals of Blood (1977), ISBN 0-14-118702-6
  • Caitaani Mutharaba-Ini (Devil on the Cross, 1980)
  • Matigari ma Njiruungi, 1986 (Matigari, translated into English by Wangui wa Goro, 1989), ISBN 0-435-90546-5
  • Mũrogi wa Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow, 2004), ISBN 9966-25-162-6
  • The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi (2020)

Short story collections[edit]

  • A Meeting in the Dark (1974)
  • Secret Lives, and Other Stories, (1976, 1992), ISBN 0-435-90975-4
  • Minutes of Glory and Other Stories (2019)




Other nonfiction[edit]

Children's books[edit]

  • Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus (translated by Wangui wa Goro) (Njamba Nene na Mbaathi i Mathagu, 1986)
  • Njamba Nene and the Cruel Chief (translated by Wangui wa Goro) (Njamba Nene na Chibu King'ang'i, 1988)
  • Njamba Nene's Pistol (Bathitoora ya Njamba Nene, 1990), ISBN 0-86543-081-0
  • The Upright Revolution, Or Why Humans Walk Upright, Seagull Press, 2019, ISBN 9780857426475

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: 'Europe and the West must also be decolonised'". YouTube. 10 September 2019.
  2. ^ "Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: A Profile of a Literary and Social Activist". Archived from the original on 29 March 2009. Retrieved 20 March 2009.
  3. ^ Kilolo, Moses (2 June 2020). "The single most translated short story in the history of African writing: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and the Jalada writers' collective". The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism. Routledge. doi:10.4324/9781315149660-21. ISBN 978-1-315-14966-0. S2CID 219925787. Retrieved 28 September 2021.
  4. ^ "Jalada Translation Issue 01: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o". Jalada. 22 March 2016.
  5. ^ a b c Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, 1994, pp. 57–59.
  6. ^ a b "Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya Collection: 1975-1998". George Padmore Institute. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  7. ^ Evan Mwangi, "Despite the Criticism, Ngugi is 'Still Best Writer'". AllAfrica, 8 November 2010.
  8. ^ Page, Benedicte, "Kenyan author sweeps in as late favourite in Nobel prize for literature", The Guardian, 5 October 2010.
  9. ^ Provost, Claire, "Ngugi wa Thiong'o: a major storyteller with a resonant development message", The Guardian, 6 October 2010.
  11. ^ "A Family Affair at Calabash: Lit Fest hosts First Family of Kenyan Letters". Jamaica Observer. 18 May 2014.
  12. ^ "Biografski dodaci" [Biographic appendices]. Republika: Časopis Za Kulturu I Društvena Pitanja (Izbor Iz Novije Afričke Književnosti) (in Serbo-Croatian). Zagreb, SR Croatia. XXXIV (12): 1424–1427. December 1978.
  13. ^ Nicholls, Brendon. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, gender, and the ethics of postcolonial reading, 2010, p. 89.
  14. ^ "The First Makerere African Writers Conference 1962". Makerere University. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  15. ^ Kahora, Billy (18 April 2017). "Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: A history of creative writing instruction in East Africa". Chimurenga Chronic. Chimurenga Who No Know Go Know.
  16. ^ Frederick Philander, "Namibian Literature at the Cross Roads", New Era, 18 April 2008.
  17. ^ Robert Gates, "African Writers, Readers, Historians Gather In London", PM News, 27 October 2017.
  18. ^ John Roger Kurtz (1998). Urban Obsessions, Urban Fears: The Postcolonial Kenyan Novel. Africa World Press. pp. 15–16. ISBN 978-0-86543-657-2.
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h "About | Profile of a Literary and Social Activist". Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o website.
  20. ^ a b c d James Currey, "Ngũgĩ, Leeds and the Establishment of African Literature", in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 74 (December 2012), pp. 48–62.
  21. ^ Hans M. Zell, Carol Bundy, Virginia Coulon, A New Reader's Guide to African Literature, Heinemann Educational Books, 1983, p. 188.
  22. ^ Wachira, Muchemi (2 April 2008). "Kenya: Publishers Losing Millions to Pirates". The Daily Nation.
  23. ^ Ngunjiri, Joseph (25 November 2007). "Kenya: Ngugi Book Causes Rift Between Publishers". The Daily Nation.
  24. ^ "Ngugi Wa Thiong'o Man of Letters". Leeds: Magazine for alumni of the University of Leeds UK. No. 12, Winter 2012/13. Leeds: University of Leeds. 15 February 2013. pp. 22–23.
  25. ^ "Author Biography", in A Study Guide for Ngugi wa Thiong'o's "Petals of Blood", Gale, 2000.
  26. ^ Brown, David Maughan (1979). "Reviewed Work(s): The Emergence of African Fiction by Charles R. Larson". English in Africa. 6 (1): 91–96. JSTOR 40238451.
  27. ^ "Ngugi wa Thiong'o (b. James Ngugi, 1938)". Craig White's Literature Courses. Archived from the original on 9 December 2013.
  28. ^ K. Narayana Chandran (2005). Texts and Their Worlds Ii. Foundation Press. p. 207. ISBN 9788175962880.
  29. ^ a b "Kenya exile ends troubled visit". BBC. 30 August 2004.
  30. ^ Nicholls, Brendon (2013). Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading. Ashgate Publishing. p. 151. ISBN 9781409475699.
  31. ^ "Out of Africa, a literary voice". Orange County Register. 11 November 2013. Retrieved 25 December 2020.
  32. ^ Jaggi, Maya (26 January 2006). "The Outsider: an interview with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 20 May 2010.
  33. ^ "The Incident at Hotel Vitale, San Francisco, California, Friday, November 10, 2006". Africa Resource. 10 November 2006.
  34. ^ Coker, Matt (6 December 2006). "ROUGHED UP ON THE WATERFRONT". OC Weekly. Retrieved 4 February 2019.
  35. ^ "The Hotel Responds to the Racist Treatment of Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o". Africa Resource. 10 November 2006.
  36. ^ "Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance" (review), Publishers Weekly, 26 January 2009.
  37. ^ Busby, Margaret, "Dreams in a Time of War, By Ngugi wa Thiong'o" (review), The Independent, 26 March 2010.
  38. ^ Jaggi, Maya, "Dreams in a Time of War by Ngugi wa Thiong'o" (review), The Guardian, 3 July 2010.
  39. ^ Payne, Tom, "Dreams in a Time of War: a Childhood Memoir by Ngugi wa Thiong’o: review", The Telegraph, 27 April 2010.
  40. ^ Arana, Marie, "Marie Arana reviews 'Dreams in a Time of War' by Ngugi wa Thiong'o", Washington Post, 10 March 2010.
  41. ^ Dreams in a Time of War at The Complete Review.
  42. ^ Tobar, Hector, "Ngugi wa Thiong'o soars 'In the House of the Interpreter'", Los Angeles Times, 16 November 2012.
  43. ^ Busby, Margaret, "In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir, By Ngugi wa Thiong'o" (review), The Independent, 1 December 2012.
  44. ^ "In the House of the Interpreter" review, Kirkus Reviews, 29 August 2012.
  45. ^ Mushava, Stanely, "A portrait of the dissident as a young man", The Herald (Zimbabwe), 10 August 2015.
  46. ^ Peterson, Angeline (27 November 2020). "The Perfect Nine: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's Feminist Spin on a Gikuyu Origin Story". Brittle Paper. Retrieved 30 March 2021.
  47. ^ a b Tepper, Anderson (12 October 2020). "How the SoCal coast inspired a legendary author's feminist Kenyan epic". Los Angeles Times.
  48. ^ Crayon, Alex (Autumn 2020). "The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o". Retrieved 30 March 2021.
  49. ^ Sampson, Fiona (10 October 2020). "The best recent poetry collections – review roundup". The Guardian.
  50. ^ Cain, Sian (30 March 2021). "Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o nominated as author and translator in first for International Booker". The Guardian.
  51. ^ Koga, Valerie (2 April 2021). "Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's book longlisted for 2021 International Booker Prize". The EastAfrican.
  52. ^ Waweru, Peter Kimani and Kiundu. "Return of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o with his writing children". The Standard. Retrieved 8 December 2018.
  53. ^ "Some of the Prize Winners". Nonino Distillatori S.p.A. Archived from the original on 6 May 2014. Retrieved 6 May 2014.
  54. ^ a b "Ehrendoktorwürde der Universität Bayreuth für Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (German)". University of Bayreuth. Archived from the original on 6 May 2014. Retrieved 6 May 2014.
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  61. ^ Pauli, Michelle (6 November 2007). "Crowd of contenders jostle for Impac prize". The Guardian.
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  64. ^ Flood, Alison (18 March 2009). "James Kelman is UK's hope for Man Booker international prize". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 October 2016.
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  74. ^ "Inaugural RSL International Writers Announced". Royal Society of Literature. 30 November 2021. Retrieved 25 December 2021.
  75. ^ Ibeh, Chukwuebuka (4 February 2022). "Ngugi wa Thiong'o Awarded Prestigious PEN America Honors". Brittle Paper. Retrieved 5 February 2022.
  76. ^ "43rd graduation" (PDF). University of Dar es Salaam. November 2013. Archived from the original (PDF) on 26 July 2014.
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  79. ^ Mwangi, Evan, "Queries over Ngugi's appeal to save African languages, culture", Daily Nation, Lifestyle Magazine, 13 June 2009.

Further reading[edit]

  • Toh, Zorobi Philippe. “Linguistic Mystifications in Discourse: Case of Proverbs in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Matigari”. Imaginaire et représentations socioculturelles dans les proverbes africains, edited by Lèfara Silué and Paul Samsia, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2020, pp. 63-71.
  • Wise, Christopher. 1997. "Resurrecting the Devil: Notes on Ngũgĩ's Theory of the Oral-Aural African Novel." Research in African Literatures 28.1:134–140.

External links[edit]